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Rider on an Orphan Train

[ 31 ] January 15, 2014 |

For your Wednesday night, how about one of the saddest songs ever, about the orphan trains, which is a real black mark on our national past, even if the alternatives weren’t always great. Not to mention that a lot of the “orphans” actually had parents who made the mistake of being poor and unemployed and Irish. Terrible, terrible times.

Tom Russell does a good version of this on his epic album about the American immigrant experience, The Man From God Knows Where.

David Massengill, who wrote this song, seems to perform it pretty frequently. Which I think would be a very difficult thing to do if it was me. I rarely shy away from the dark side of the American past, but this one is pretty tough.

West Virginia Water

[ 73 ] January 15, 2014 |

Sure am glad the relevant agencies declared West Virginia water safe now after the Freedom Industries chemical spill:

“What we are seeing when we talk to our partners in hospital systems are people with skin and eye irritation, rashes, nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea,” Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said.

The Daily Mail reports:

[Gupta] said 101 patients visited area emergency rooms in the 36-hour span ending at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, reporting symptoms related to exposure to tainted water. He said 46 of those allegedly water-related emergency room visits occurred between 7 p.m. Tuesday night and 7 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Gupta said many of those patients reported using water that was deemed safe to use by West Virginia American Water. As of Wednesday afternoon, the “do not use” order has been lifted for 51,600 of the 100,000 customers affected by the chemical spill.

Why it’s almost like the entire state government of West Virginia is bought and sold by the coal industry and perhaps may not have the best interest of its citizens in mind!

By the way, the last time the factory was inspected? 1991. But of course the nation has too many burdensome regulations on business and too many unions getting in the way of Freedom.

This Day in Labor History: January 15, 1915

[ 26 ] January 15, 2014 |

On the night of January 15, 1915, the IWW writer and propagandist Ralph Chaplin wrote the song “Solidarity Forever.” The song is emblematic of Wobbly culture. If there’s one thing the IWW did well, it was culture creation. This culture creation has done a great deal to give them outsized influence compared to their real accomplishments in American labor and radical history, continuing to make the union and its ideas relevant to activists today.

The IWW valued culture as politics very early. The early twentieth century was a period of working-class poetry and song. The timber union journals I look at are full of this sort of thing, whether radical or not. Given the popularity of syndicalism among the Wobblies’ European immigrant base, this was enhanced by these same immigrants also bringing traditions of radicalism through culture with them to the United States.

Ralph Chaplin was a central figure in the IWW. He was born to radicalism, having witnessed a worker shot to death during the Pullman Strike at the age of 7. He later traveled to Mexico in the early days of the Mexican Revolution, becoming an admirer of Emiliano Zapata. Upon his return from Mexico, Chaplin became involved with the growing IWW, which had by the early 1910s become the most important union alternative to the American Federation of Labor. Chaplin began writing “Solidarity Forever” while working on a coal strike in West Virginia in 1914. It took him a few months to finish. After watching a demonstration of the hungry in Chicago in 1915, he went back to his hotel room and finished the song. It soon became the most important song of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook.

Ralph Chaplin

The song’s lyrics:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
For the union makes us strong.


It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.


All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
While the union makes us strong.


They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.

Carried from place to place by the unionists, the songbook gave workers songs over which they could build solidarity. In our present of demographically divided cultural creation, it’s almost impossible to imagine a single song or style having the ability to unite people in struggle. That might well make for better music, but it’s politically a problem. The ability to sing together, although not cool in our oh so ironic and detached age, helped workers riding trains between timber camps, in the fields, and in the mines of the American West get through their daily lives of toil and great struggle. These songs and images created a revolutionary counterculture to the dominant culture of the day that contributed to working-class oppression. Songs and posters were central to building a workers’ revolution. They also served to push a revolutionary message to a polyglot and often illiterate (especially in English) working-class. Not everyone could read a tract. But they might learn the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever.” And it didn’t take a working knowledge of the language to see the meaning of a class war prisoner reaching through prison bars or a muscular man standing proud.

The Little Red Songbook

Through their songbooks, their newspapers, and their flyers, the IWW created really great culture. The black cat. Mr. Block. “Solidarity Forever.” These are images and songs that stick with us. As a labor organization, the IWW was often pretty ineffective. Some of that had to do with the conditions of organizing in the early 20th century. But as much had to do with weaknesses within the IWW. It was not infrequent that the IWW’s commitment to culture actually hindered organizing. The disastrous Paterson Strike Pageant was a prime example, dividing the workers (those not selected to participate were jealous and the resentments split the strikers) and taking them away from picketing, thus allowing scabs into the factories.

A classic piece of Wobbly culture creation

Compared to either the AFL or CIO, the IWW accomplished almost nothing. At best, the union’s campaigns caused so many problems in a given industry that it helped force the government to improve the conditions of workers to undermine it, such as with the Pacific Northwest timber workers I study. But both the AFL and CIO were terrible at culture creation. And as bureaucratic organizations, they had little room the kind of individualistic, showy activity that embedded the IWW in public memory. In fact, they explicitly eschewed this kind of thing as unproductive. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But the IWW remains in the memory of American radicals today as an alternative to an AFL-CIO seen as unresponsive, boring, and bureaucratic. It’s had that power since the late 1960s. And the reason for it is largely the powerful cultural creations like “Solidarity Forever.”

Like many Wobbly intellectuals, Chaplin initially expressed hope that the Soviet Union was the beginning a true workers’ revolution but also like many of them, became quickly disillusioned. Chaplin remained committed to anti-communist leftist thought in the United States until World War II. In 1949, Chaplin became curator for manuscripts at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, a position he retained until his death in 1961. I figure this makes him the most famous archivist in American history.

For a good book on the creation of IWW culture, see Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World.

This is the 91st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

White Wedding

[ 78 ] January 14, 2014 |

Back when I had my own blog, I put up a historical image of the day. It was really just for me to slowly build a bank of images for teaching purposes. Since I don’t do that here, I thought I ought to recollect them in a more user-friendly format. I’ve been slowly doing that. Anyone can feel free to steal of any them, but don’t ask for attribution because I have no idea where I got them at this point (another reason to keep them off LGM). Anyway, I came across this the other day. Figured it might spark some conservation on a Tuesday night.

Ku Klux Klan wedding, Sedro-Wooley, Washington, 1926.

Shorter Boehner: “Freedom Industries Dumping Chemicals into Rivers is the Definition of Freedom”

[ 71 ] January 14, 2014 |

John Boehner gives his official approval to a regulatory regime that allows companies to cut off the water supply for 300,000 people.

More on the lax regulations of West Virginia that lead to worker deaths, pollution, and toxicity. In other words, freedom.

Jesse Helms’ Revenge

[ 42 ] January 14, 2014 |

Today in the annals of the World’s Worst Deliberative Body, we have the case of Robert Pastor. Pastor, who died the other day, was something of a wunderkind in the field of foreign policy toward Latin America. At the ripe old age of 29, he shepherded Carter’s treaty giving the Panama Canal back to Panama through the Senate.* In 1994, President Clinton nominated Pastor to be Ambassador to Panama. And this is where our old friend Jesse Helms comes into the story.

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton nominated Mr. Pastor to be ambassador to Panama, many conservatives remained critical of the loss of the canal. Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, who headed the Foreign Relations Committee, prevented Mr. Pastor’s nomination from being voted on by the full Senate even though his committee had approved it, 16 to 3.

“He presided over one of the most disastrous and humiliating periods in the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America,” Mr. Helms said.

Mr. Pastor asked that his nomination be withdrawn in 1995. Administration officials told The New York Times that he would almost certainly have been approved had the nomination come to a Senate vote. (The post ultimately went to William J. Hughes, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey.)

If by “humiliation” Helms meant “treating nations with respect instead of stealing their land,” and of course that is humiliating for a racist like Helms, then sure. But I do love how a nominee can pass committee 16-3 and be held up by one senator.

Like any good very concerned Beltway pundit, I now see how Harry Reid is destroying the Senate by making it operate in ways that move slightly toward real democracy! Now will Fred Hiatt please hire me!

*We can discuss this in comments, but I’m of the rather decided belief that Carter’s legacy is the second most complex of any postwar president, outside of LBJ of course. The Panama treaty was really a very good thing and something of a repudiation of a century of American imperialism in Latin America. But of course Carter made so many mistakes in other areas.

This Day in Labor History: January 14, 1888

[ 25 ] January 14, 2014 |

On January 14, 1888, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 was published. One of the two most influential books in American labor history (with The Jungle as the other), Bellamy’s treatise tapped into the dreams of thousands of Americans who found the promises of the post-Civil War economy a lie and were desperate for alternatives to the reality of Gilded Age capitalism.

By the 1880s, the promise of post-Civil War capitalism had failed the American working class. Most working Americans believed, and this was fundamental to the founding ideology of the Republican Party, in free labor. In short that meant the ability of individuals to control their own economic destiny, either as an independent operator or as an employee in a small shop that would often lead to later independence. But the Civil War had transformed the American economy and while Gilded Age Republicans at first spoke the words of free labor, they consistently supported policies that concentrated capital at the top. Men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie became unbelievably wealthy while the majority of workers fell into poverty. The search for wealth led to wide-scale corruption that both caused economic collapses and bought off politicians all the way up to Grant’s vice-president.

By the 1880s, a lot of working-class Americans were searching for a solution. Most still fundamentally believed in the system of free labor market capitalism. They generally felt that if they could just tweak the system in one big way, everything would align. So they searched for any number of ways to do that. Some wanted to restrict immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative success for labor unions in American history. Others grasped onto the 8-hour day. The Farmers Alliance sought railroad regulations. Other workers thought Henry George’s Single Tax on land would create conditions of equality.

Of all these one-off solutions, none had more power or appeal than Edward Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward. Bellamy, a previously unknown reporter for the Springfield (MA) Daily Union, wrote a book telling the tale of Julian West, who is placed in a hypnotic trance in 1887 and because of a disaster is forgotten about until he is uncovered in 2000. Waking up, West is confused. His strife-riven, class-divided Boston of the Gilded Age has become a peaceful sort of paradise. Competitive capitalism had disappeared with all its terrible byproducts–inequality, strikes, poverty, taxes, money, wealth, and domestic labor. There were no more political parties, garbage, advertisements, state governments, or corruption. People retired at the age of 45 and lived long lives of comfort. There is harmony between the sexes, although based around a paternalistic view of women.

Most importantly for Gilded Age readers who ultimately still believed in the system’s fundamentals, this revolution was not Haymarket and it was not the Paris Commune. This was a peaceful revolution. Americans saw their society in crisis and voted in the necessary changes.

Bellamy was an evolutionary socialist and his ideas were appealing to those who realized that Gilded Age society was in a state of crisis and needed changes. Looking Backward became a best seller, moving over 1000 copies per day at its peak. By 1891, the book had sold nearly 500,000 copies, making it the biggest best seller of its era. Workers and middle class reformers around the country started Bellamy Clubs to press for his ideas. For the growing middle class, just entering the first stages of what would later be known as Progressivism, Bellamyism had possibly even more appeal than to workers. The first Bellamy Club was set up in Boston in 1889 and they soon spread around the country. A California Bellamyite wrote to him that “When the Golden Century arrives, your name will receive the homage of the human race of that period as the only writer of the 19th century capable of seeing, feeling and portraying the ‘better way.'”

Within the labor movement, Looking Backward was widely hailed. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor embraced his ideas. For the Knights’ leadership, Bellamyism was far more appealing than the anarchism that had led to the Haymarket bombing and helped destroy the 8-hour day movement that had led to its growth up to 1886. The book became central to Knights locals and in fact many Bellamy Clubs became labor unions. The book attracted followers such as Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Upton Sinclair, and Daniel DeLeon. In later years, Franklin Roosevelt and Norman Thomas talked of its influence upon them. The Progressives held the book close as well. Effectively, in a world where people were desperately searching for a vision of a future that included both equality and peace, Bellamy’s dream world was an ideal.

Although one can say this of many futuristic novels, if we squint enough, we can see Bellamy predicting some of the 20th century, including credit cards, shopping malls and radios. As literature, it’s pretty tough sledding. It’s mostly a long conversation between West and his mentor in the new world. It’s stilted and much of it is boring; I used it once to introduce a course on the Gilded Age and it was a complete disaster.

Ultimately, these relatively simplistic solutions to the perils of American capitalism began to fade in favor of far more complex and necessary understandings of the system. Whether through the pure and simple unionism of the American Federation of Labor or the ideologically complex systems of anarchism, socialism, and communism, by the late 19th century, workers increasingly understood that the system they lived in was not an anomaly but rather the intentional creation of the plutocrats. Free labor ideology faded, replaced by class consciousness. Bellamyism had long legs as a utopian ideal, but as a direct goal to attain, more realistic and complex ways of understanding the world came to the forefront.

Edward Bellamy was uncomfortable with the ardor his book evinced and resisted publishing a follow-up. He eventually did in 1897, but it did not sell well. He died in 1898.

This is the 90th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

Roy Campbell, RIP

[ 5 ] January 13, 2014 |

The great jazz trumpeter has passed, way too young. I saw him play with Other Dimensions in Music (also featuring William Parker, Rashid Bakr, and Daniel Carter) in Atlanta in 1999. Here’s a piece from the band in 2009.

Profiles in Courage

[ 101 ] January 13, 2014 |

Wisconsin Republican Joel Kleefisch does the bidding of his masters:

A set of documents unearthed Saturday by the Wisconsin State Journal shows [Republican donor Michael Eisenga] and his lawyer, William Smiley, supplying detailed instructions to Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch on how to word legislation capping child support payments from the wealthy. Kleefisch began work on the legislation last fall, weeks after an appeals court rejected Eisenga’s attempts to lower his child support payments. […]

The drafting documents, available on the Wisconsin legislature’s website, leave little doubt that the bill was written to Eisenga’s specifications.

This would be Wisconsin, a state that Scott Walker and other Republicans have already turned into an exclusive playground for The People Who Give Them Money. Michael Eisenga is a well-to-do Wisconsin businessman; Michael Eisenga had previously contributed $10,000 to Kleefisch and his wife (Rebecca Kleefisch, the current lieutenant governor); Michael Eisenga got to have his lawyer advise Kleefisch on how precisely to craft a bill that would get Michael Eisenga out of having to pay $216,000 a year in child support.

Rep. Kleefisch, for his part, wants you to know that he is not in fact a two-bit statehouse whore because while the bill was crafted according to Eisenga’s specifications, Eisenga wanted the bill to be retroactive to his own case, and Kleefisch bravely declined—except Kleefisch appears to be lying about that part, given that the bill indeed “requires” judges to lower current payments that would be above the newly set cap. It seems that the good man does not know what is in his own bill; he probably should have read it.

Northern Man

[ 36 ] January 13, 2014 |

At least one Canadian is making sense about the nation’s horrifically bad energy and environmental policies:

Neil Young kicked off his four-date “Honour the Treaties” tour of Canada on Sunday with some fighting words about the rapid expansion of oilsands development in northern Alberta, saying the Canadian government is ignoring hard science because it’s “inconvenient.”

“To me, it’s a basic matter of integrity on the part of Canada. Canada is trading integrity for money,” said Young. “That’s what’s happening under the current leadership in Canada, which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States. It’s lagging behind on the world stage and it’s an embarrassment to Canadians. So, as a Canadian, I felt like I had a chance to do something by bringing this together.”

Young didn’t pull any punches, either, labelling the oilsands a “devastating environmental catastrophe” and accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, of selling out their grandchildren’s future for the sake of short-term financial gain.

A recent visit to the Alberta oilsands left an indelible impression as “the greediest, most destructive and disrespectful demonstration of something run amok that you could ever see” and left Young pessimistic about the petroleum industry’s promises of environmental “reclamation” once the land has been bled dry of oil.

“It’s like turning the moon into Eden,” he quipped. “It’s just not possible.”

It’s worth noting that for all the often deserved progressive reputation Canada has compared to the United States, when it comes to natural resources, not only oil but forestry and wilderness protection, Canada is woefully behind its neighbor to the South. And that’s not saying the U.S. is any great shakes either. But Canadian natural resource policy is really, really irresponsible to the planet.

This Day in Labor History: January 13, 1874

[ 18 ] January 13, 2014 |

On January 13, 1874, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers met in Tompkins Square Park to protest their unemployment and poverty. There, the police would beat them in the first large-scale state crackdown of the American white poor in the nation’s history.

The Panic of 1873 was the first of the post-Civil War economic collapses to throw the working class into desperation. Caused primarily by corrupt railroad financing, especially thanks to the notorious Jay Cooke, the Panic led to high unemployment throughout the 1870s and created the first explicitly class-based political actions in American history. By November 1873, 55 railroads had gone bankrupt, wages were slashed, unemployment jumped, and the American working class began realizing the impact of the unregulated capitalism suddenly transforming their country. Most Americans at this time lacked what we might consider a “class consciousness” or any real doubt that the growing economic system wouldn’t serve their interests as independent operators manfully thriving. But the Panic began to lead to the first meaningful questioning of how this system affected workers and while substantial and well-organized radical resistance would take some time to develop, the first stirrings of resistance are clear in the mid 1870s.

Political cartoon of the effects of the Panic of 1873 on New York. Frank Bellew, New York Daily Graphic, September 29, 1873

Some urban workers responded to the Panic by organizing into one of the first unemployed workers movements in American history (probably we can trace the very first stirrings of these types of movement to the economic problems of 1857). In New York, the Committee of Safety was formed, demanding public works projects to employ those who needed work and the mayor to meet with them about it. In the first days of 1874, a series of protests became increasingly larger. By January 8, over 1000 workers were meeting in Tompkins Square Park and the demands were growing, including for the 8-hour day.

Tompkins Square as a site of recreation for the poor, 1873

Already though, the nascent labor movement in New York was divided between “radicals” and “conservatives.” Some of the leaders of the Committee of Safety were socialists and other labor leaders in New York denounced them as “communists,” a term with a much less defined threat than the post-1917 period, but one that already meant un-American. A bricklayer named Patrick Dunn led a counter movement that denounced the Committee of Safety and launched his own movement with many of the same demands, culminating in a January 5 march to City Hall. The Iron Molders International Union also tarred the Committee of Safety with a similar brush, using the term “anarchist.” What this really meant to Americans in 1874 was “immigrant that questioned the fundamentals of American capitalism.” The leader of the Committee of Safety was Peter J. McGuire, later famous for being the founding figure and long-time president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which later became the most powerful union in the American Federation of Labor. McGuire called for a mass demonstration on January 13, urging the city to quit evicting unemployed tenants and instead to provide public aid. Many of the unemployed workers were immigrants and McGuire urged sympathy with their plight, a stance many native-born unionists were not willing to follow.

The forces of order across New York freaked out. Calling this the American version of the Paris Commune, newspaper editors and business owners called for the crushing of these workers. The mayor refused to meet, the police refused to allow them to march to City Hall, the governor refused to get involved. On January 13, over 8000 workers met at Tompkins Square. This was the largest political demonstration in New York history to that point. The protestors permit to meet had been revoked but no one told the protestors. Meanwhile, 1600 police officers gathered near the park.

At about 10 a.m., the police moved in and began savagely beating the protestors with clubs, while horse-mounted police cleared the streets. Samuel Gompers, still over a decade away from his ascension as a major American labor leader, remembered, “mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway.” 46 workers were arrested. Two men were charged with assault, one, a German named Christian Mayer, for hitting a policemen with a hammer. Most of the arrested workers were unemployed immigrants who could not afford bail. One, Justus Schwab, later became a leader of American anarchism.

The police clearing Tompkins Square

The suppression of the Tompkins Square protests undermined the unemployed workers movement in the city. Most of the city’s and nation’s newspapers lauded the police for purging the United States of its own version of the Paris Commune, beginning a long history of police and big newspaper editors joining to suppress the rights of workers. For much of the 19th century, the police response to Tompkins Square became a model. Pennsylvania law enforcement looking to suppress the Molly Maguires took lessons from it, while Chicago developed militias with the aim of cracking workers’ heads if need be; several of these were engaged in the violence of 1886 that culminated at Haymarket.

The Committee of Safety soon dissolved, attempting to form a political party which soon disappeared on its own. A socialist newspaper campaign convinced the governor of New York to pardon Mayer later in the year, but otherwise there was little public sympathy for the victims of Tompkins Square. In coming years, more class-based social movements would develop as the American working class tried to understand and fight back against this new world of big capitalism. Most notably, in 1877, the Great Railroad Strike would announce to the nation’s leaders that American workers would engage in mass organizing. But it would take over six more decades of economic boom and bust, the growth of class consciousness, and a series of left-leaning movements for working-class dignity before the government would finally become even minimally responsive to the needs of unemployed Americans.

This would not be the last time Tompkins Square found itself the point of police violence, as in 1988, the people who hung out in the park, now a space for punks, youth cultures, and the homeless were angry about gentrification and a 1 a.m. curfew battled police.

This is the 89th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Mmmmmm…..Doughnut Building…..

[ 111 ] January 12, 2014 |

Some of us like doughnuts on Sunday mornings. Others like
the new doughnut shaped skyscraper in Guangzhou.

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